Does cognitive load theory apply to reception year?

Much of my writing about EYFS is a simple extrapolation of how I would apply what we know about the benefits of, for example, explicit instruction, and how lots of practice enables those positive changes to long term memory – my theory is that whatever in the way of evidence-based practice applies to all the other year groups above reception year must also apply to reception year (and nursery) itself because the structure and function of the human brain is the same, regardless of age. Of course, EYFS experts would jump on this and parody my argument by saying I want to see children slaving away at desks all day long when nothing could be further from the truth – whole class instruction can also involve lots of singing, hearing great stories, for example (still leaving plenty of time for all important free play). I’ve written a lot about how the ‘best practice’ set up of your typical reception year classroom leaves too much to hope and chance, allows disadvantaged children to fall behind and ensures that children who have had extra practice at home (also known as ‘good parenting’) in the basics to fly ahead; however, I’ve not written about how specific elements of cognitive load theory applies to the reception year classroom.

In a nutshell, of course I believe that cognitive load theory applies to the reception year classroom. The trouble is, I don’t think EYFS experts give much thought to this at all (happy to be corrected on this). It’s an interesting thought experiment, so here goes……

#1 What are they thinking about?

Of course, the ideal, according to experts, is that children don’t know they’re learning – they’re supposed to just be thinking about having fun, innocently playing their way to basic competence in reading, writing, conversation, calculations, although we do at least now have a requirement for explicit instruction on systematic synthetic phonics. I’m in two minds about this issue. For me, it seems like a massive imposition on cognitive load for a child to be thinking about, say, adding as well as playing at the same time. Let me give you an example:

maths 1

Harry’s 4 years old, what would he be thinking about when he approached this multi coloured table? Harry’s not competent in the maths basics, otherwise he’d probably reinforce his knowledge with a few more calculations and wow the girlz with his adding prowess. However, he’s got no clue, so what is he going to do? Maybe play with the tweezers, scoop up all the counters and then pour them out? You bet. Even if the adult (remember, there are two, possibly three, adults in this classroom of 30 children) did come by and ‘encourage’ some kind of activity involving actual maths, the confused child is now thinking the following:

  • I want to please this person
  • I want to continue to have fun with these tweezers
  • Adding is hard – I don’t want to do that
  • Maybe if I went to the painting area, this teacher would leave me alone
  • OK I’ll just do a bit of adding, then when Mrs Smith goes and deals with the pushing and shoving over there, I’m just going to carry on with this epic scooping and pouring project
  • 2 add 4, hmmm, which counters shall I choose?
  • OK, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 5, 6, 10, oh I’ve forgotten what I’m doing
  • What was the question?
  • How come Hermione seems to know all her adding things off by heart?

It seems to me that Harry’s working memory is overloaded – in order to be better at calculating, he needs to think about the calculations and pretty much nothing else. Unfortunately, the above set up overloads his working memory before he’s even picked up a pencil and had the opportunity to write anything down and check it makes sense.

So, maybe the above example was too open ended? Let’s look at another:

maths 2

Now, how long did it take you to work out how to use this ‘machine’. It looks fun, doesn’t it? It’s a classic, lovingly made by hard-working, caring reception year teachers and appearing on many independent maths tables in reception year classrooms up and down the country. Unfortunately, it causes children to think about lots of other factors at the same time as the calculations, and this is what happens in Harry’s mind:

  • Ooh, nice machine. I love a machine. Wonder if it goes 100 mph?
  • How do I use it?
  • Oh yes, Miss explained how to use it at the beginning of the lesson. I wasn’t really listening then because she’d also previously explained the spider man writing challenge table and the creative area activity and the outside jumping and hula-hooping thing and the……
  • I’ll just copy Hermione
  • Right, look at the card like she is. E + 7. What the…? Oh, it’s upside down. 2 + 3.  I got this
  • I’m gonna have 2 cubes and 3 cubes. I got this
  • [sing songy voice activated] I’m gonna put the 2 cubes and the 3 cubes and the 4 cubes and the 5 cubes…oooops gone too far….take some out….I’m gonna take the 5 cubes and the 4 cubes and the 3 cubes….
  • HERMIONE!! Why are you using this at the same time?
  • Let’s count it up. What do we get? Tada! 11 cubes [there are 23 but no one knows the number for that].
  • Miss? Are you going to take my picture on your iPad as well as Hermione’s?

Not only was Harry not thinking about the calculation in the way that was intended, but he was thinking about all sorts of other things and then the outcome wasn’t just the wrong answer, but a missed opportunity to learn, off by heart, that 2 and 3 make a no-quibble 5.

#2 choices

I really struggled to find the kind of picture I want you all to see, but without children in it (GDPR ‘n’ all that). So, we’re talking about ‘continuous provision’ which, for the uninitiated, means a number of areas within a room, a creative area and an outside area with lots of different educational activities laid out. Some of these activities are numeracy, literacy based, and some are more like free play, one area will be dressing up within a particular topic etc. The thing about choice is that it involves choice, and when you’re making a choice, you’re not thinking about the learning. This brings me to another aspect of the disadvantaged child’s life in that our man Harry is more likely to lack the kind of concentration and resilience that well-fed, secure, calm and focused Hermione has. Harry, through lack of opportunities for/expectation of sustained concentration at home (such as eating and having polite conversation at the dinner table, or having a story read to him), has not got the requisite focus to really benefit from spending time at just one area, but tends to flit about like a fly on E. Even his mum laments the fact that he just can’t sit down for too long which is not because he’s got ADHD by the way, but because he hasn’t had much practice sitting down…because no one’s actually ensured that he sits down. Anyway, not only does he not get the same benefit of the maths and the independent writing tables as Hermione because he hasn’t got the basic knowledge down pat so ends up overloading his own working memory, but he also spends more of his time making choices and then giving up than Hermione because he just can’t sit down like she can.

The above two examples of how reception year ‘best practice’ does not consider working memory, or, you know, what the child is thinking about at any one time that might not be about learning. And this is before we’ve gone into the additional detrimental effect of constant noise, constant movement, constant visual (and olfactory) stimuli that take up precious working memory, reducing the educational experience to virtually nil for the disadvantaged child.

Say you wanted to get radical and just separate out the whole play and learning thing (for crucial early academic knowledge). Maybe increase the amount of explicit instruction a little, ensure that whatever is taught is practised to automacity in a quiet and calm atmosphere and then just go nuts with the whole play thing once Harry’s got what Hermione’s got. Could you? No. The current EYFS framework mandates a certain way….


So, we’re told that children learn through play. And that’s that. Here’s more:

teaching and learning

If we look at the playing and exploring aspect and the assumption that children need to investigate and experience things in order to learn, you do need to have certain thought processes going on in your head in order to get out of x, y or z activity that which the teacher had in mind. In short, you need a requisite amount of knowledge to partake in the whole investigating and experiencing thing. Harry doesn’t have any knowledge, so……?

As for ‘active learning’. It’s generally interpreted as anything that involves moving about or using the hands – but when your limbs are flying about, you’re thinking about your limbs flying about and not the learning. Trouble is, Harry also struggles to concentrate, so……?

Then we have creating and thinking critically – where do these ‘own ideas’ come from? Harry doesn’t have many ideas because he’s not got the kind of knowledge that Hermione’s got, so……?

These 3 characteristics of effective teaching and learning seem to be the opposite to the effective characteristics of teaching and learning in year 1, 2, 3 all the way up to….er…..adulthood. No mention of explicit instruction. No mention of much needed practice to fluency and automacity. No mention of retrieval practice to help secure knowledge in long term memory. Yet, their brains are virtually the same come year 1 – albeit with slightly more connections (especially for Hermione). I’m also reminded of the very somber message said to us all at a recent local authority moderation meeting:

Remember, we are looking for evidence of the three characteristics of effective teaching and learning in your setting – this is mandatory. Evidence collected for the ELGs must be through implementation of these three characteristics.”

Anyway, I maintain that cognitive load theory applies to Harry in reception year just as much as it applies to a Harry in year 1, 2, 3 and beyond. How we factor that in, while also ensuring that Harry develops in other ways and gets the right amount of play, is another question entirely!

Who’s with me?



4 thoughts on “Does cognitive load theory apply to reception year?

  1. If there were any justice in this world, the people who wrote the EYFS Framework would be hung, drawn and quartered. OK, I exaggerate a bit, but I still recall my Kindergarten, which was a long, long time ago. I hated it. I had no idea what any of it was all about–it just seemed like a lot of kids messing around. My disillusionment was complete after I found out that our ‘project’ of building a bus just amounted to arranging chairs in rows just like it was a bus, and then filing in and out as we supposedly reached fictional stops. And here I thought it would have wheels–even my little red wagon had four of them, and my tricycle had three.

    Granted, our teacher had a much easier life, as this was long before the days of mobile phones that could take pictures, much less videos. She could just do as she bloody well pleased. Fortunately, we only had half-day ‘classes’–the boredom was excruciating as it was. So cognitive load never came into the picture, nor was there any expectation that we would learn anything about letters or numbers: just pure Froebel.

    Now, we do things differently, and the cognitive load problem runs right through schooling. I’ve just been reading the primary maths curriculum, and it’s a massive hit list aimed at children whose working memories can’t handle at least a dozen learning tasks at once. Just looking at the first few pages of Singapore Maths was an eye-opener–virtually every page was festooned with distractions that had nothing to do with number. Instead of teaching them to do one thing well, we expect them to find multiple ways of doing the same task. And as our ongoing tests of secondary pupils is confirming, the word ‘mastery’ is just a sick joke when it’s applied to maths.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Agree with you. “Children learn through play” is a is an interesting statement isn’t it. The question needs to be “what can they learn through play?” I would say yes to motor skills, social skills but no to abstract knowledge which needs direct instruction. Even then some motor skills like how to hold a pencil can benefit from explicit instruction and practice. Although I am no cognitive scientist, it would seem logical to me that the basic architecture of understand via working memory, long term memory etc, is well in place in preschool children. We need to be wary of developmentalism via neuroscience ie arguments that this or that part of the brain is not developed because as far as I know, cognition in terms of short and long term memory cannot be mapped onto parts of the brain (out on a limb here though).

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Interesting take on what the activities are for, and a teacher explaining all the activities in the room, wow what a waste of time. Take for example the ‘machine’ It doesn’t matter if Harry finds a new way of using it, he’ll be reinforcing what he already knows, listening and watching others to gain a different perspective. The activities are there for the children to interpret and use to their ability, not prescribed but suggested, otherwise each activity is adult led and there is no child led learning at all. Don’t box them in or limit their intelligence. We all learn through play- trial and error, having a go, watching others. And what we learn when happy stays in the brain.


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